LONDON (Reuters) - Police said on Thursday they would not reopen investigations into the interception of celebrities’ mobile phone voicemails by journalists, despite new allegations against a Rupert Murdoch newspaper.
According to a report in The Guardian, reporters at Murdoch’s best selling News of the World worked with private investigators to access “two or three thousand” private mobile phones belonging to celebrities, MPs and public figures.
Actors Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, Australian model Elle Macpherson and former deputy prime minister John Prescott were among those targeted by journalists seeking stories for the Sunday newspaper, according to the report.
The story generated a political storm and Prime Minister Gordon Brown said there were “serious questions to be answered.” But police said they would not reopen a 2005 investigation that led to the jailing of two men, News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and a private investigator, for hacking into the phones of staff working for the royal family.
Assistant Commissioner John Yates of the Metropolitan Police said the original probe concluded that phone tapping had occurred in only a minority of cases. All those victims had been informed, he said.
“Their potential targets may have run into hundreds of people, but our inquiries showed that they only used the tactic against a far smaller number of individuals,” Yates said.
“No additional evidence has come to light since this case has concluded. I therefore consider that no further investigation is required.”
The Guardian had reported that News International, the British newspaper subsidiary of media company News Corp, had already paid 1 million pounds to settle court cases with three people — including soccer executive Gordon Taylor — whose phones were violated.
The Guardian said private investigators working for the News of the World intercepted voicemail messages and gained access to personal data such as itemised phone bills and bank statements.
When asked for comment on the issue, Murdoch said on Thursday he had “nothing to say at all.” He was speaking on the sidelines of a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
News Corp named The Sun editor Rebekah Wade as CEO of News International, beginning September 1. When asked if Wade’s job was safe, Murdoch replied: “Don’t be silly.”
Labour Party politicians called for an inquiry into the police’s actions, Murdoch’s newspapers and the Conservative Party, which hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as its communications chief in May 2007.
Conservative leader David Cameron insisted he would not get rid of Coulson who resigned as the paper’s editor shortly after Goodman was jailed.
The case has also reignited debate over the ethics of Britain’s fiercely competitive tabloids, which thrived for years on a brash mix of sex, scandal and “showbiz exclusives” before seeing sales fall sharply in the face of Internet competition.
The Information Commissioner’s Office, a privacy watchdog, said it gave Taylor’s lawyers evidence last year of News International reporters buying and selling personal information after the ICO received a court order.
“This included material that showed that 31 journalists working for The News of the World and The Sun had acquired people’s personal information through ‘blagging’,” Assistant Information Commissioner Mick Gorrill said in a statement.
“Blagging” is a form of deception where a person pretends to be someone else in an attempt to obtain information from sources such as banks or telephone companies, the watchdog said.
News International said it had worked to “ensure its journalists fully comply” with relevant legislation since the Goodman case.
“At the same time, we will not shirk from vigorously defending our right and proper role to expose wrongdoing in the public interest,” it said in a statement.
The furore is unlikely to die down despite the police’s decision. The Crown Prosecution Service said it would urgently review evidence provided by police as part of the 2005 inquiry while a committee of lawmakers is also to re-examine the issue.
Additional reporting by Tim Castle, Michael Holden, Luke Baker and Yinka Adegoke; writing by Michael Holden; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Andre Grenon